Thursday, October 13, 2011

Beethoven Piano Sonatas, part 1

A while back I put up an introduction to Shostakovich symphonies. Now let's look at some Beethoven. I came to serious examination of the Beethoven piano sonatas very late--just a few years ago. I had had recordings of the "Hammerklavier" and the "Moonlight" sonatas for a long time, but I really hadn't explored the others to any extent. My excuse was that I was a guitarist, so it was more important for me to be learning the sonatas by Castelnuevo-Tedesco, Fernando Sor and Manuel Ponce. Well, true enough, as a guitarist. But every musician should know the Beethoven piano sonatas. With the possible exception of the keyboard music by J. S. Bach, the Beethoven sonatas comprise the most significant body of music for a solo instrument ever written. Well, ok, you could argue for the piano music by Chopin--but are you going to say it is more important than the Beethoven sonatas? I didn't think so!

They extend from the beginnings of his career, with opus 2, to close to the end, with opus 111. The sonatas of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven's immediate predecessors, were largely written for the enjoyment of amateurs, but most of the Beethoven sonatas require considerable skill and some are at the limits of virtuosity. While it would be generally acknowledged that the Beethoven sonatas surpass considerably those of Haydn and Mozart, I doubt that any written for piano since surpass Beethoven's. Here is the Wikipedia guide to the sonatas. Let's take a look at three and, as is traditional with Beethoven, make them an early, a middle and a late period sonata.

Here's the first movement of the fairly early Sonata Path√©tique, played by Claudio Arrau:

If it weren't for the more coherent harmonic structure, you might almost think you were listening to Liszt during that opening Grave. Beethoven was only 27 when he wrote this and already it is unmistakable. The Grave returns--twice! And when the allegro arrives, the drive, the intense focus on a small amount of thematic material--these are characteristics of all his music. After this comes a melting slow movement with one of those themes whose utter simplicity astounds every time you hear it. It takes great artistry to write a movement like this:

That was Artur Schnabel, the first great Beethoven specialist of the era of recording. I sincerely hope you weren't eating a ham sandwich while that was playing. Schnabel put off recording Beethoven for many years because he said he was afraid that if he released recordings of the Beethoven sonatas someone, somewhere, would be listening to them while eating a ham sandwich. For the last movement, a rondo, let's go to Berlin where, in 2005, Daniel Barenboim performed the complete Beethoven piano sonatas over 8 concerts in 2 weeks at the Staatsoper. They are available on six DVDs.

Tomorrow a middle-period sonata...


Anonymous said...

I've probably spent too much time listening to Schiff's lectures:,,1943867,00.html

But they're priceless. Worth every second.

Bryan Townsend said...

I have chosen a performance by Andras Schiff for part of my next post on the Beethoven sonatas. Stunning musicality!

chrismbrown said...


I've been reading your blog for some time now and I have to say it's one of the most accessible and enjoyable blogs I've read for a while. I'm also a classical guitarist, but I've never studied the theory of music much. I'd also love to do some composing (as you have mentioned in other threads).

Could I ask: could you suggest a good way for me to get into music theory (bearing in mind I am a full-time worker, so returning to college is not an option nor do I have tons of spare time).


Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Chris,

Thanks so much for the kind words!

Maybe I should do a post on this? But in the meantime... You can teach yourself music theory from any number of basic texts. The ultimate text on harmony is Aldwell and Schachter, which is college-level. It is 600 pages of densely-packed info and pretty pricey. But the best. But there are lots of inexpensive texts on the basics. I assume you read music pretty well, you just want to learn more about harmony and structure?

You can teach yourself, but it would sure help to have someone look over your work from time to time. I'll bet there is an underemployed composer or theorist in your area.